When Chris Gethard announced that his cult TV show would be making the move to TruTV, the home of Impractical Jokers and Billy On The Street, he commended the network for their willingness to take a risk on him and his crew. “Kudos to them for embracing what could be a real disaster. My promise to you though is that should it be a disaster, The Chris Gethard Show on truTV will be the most watchable disaster the world has ever seen.”
That said, it was far from a disaster. The first half of The Gethard Show‘s first season on truTV has been fantastically successful, bringing with it a laundry list of insane gags, consequences, a lot of… smells. However, it is also easy to overlook the last few minutes of each episode, which sees the entire studio audience turn around toward the back of the room for the musical guest. Over the last few years, musical guests have ranged from Jeff Rosenstock to the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn to Anamanaguchi.
With the move to truTV, the music department received a bigger — well… an actually existent — budget and even more credibility to pursue their ever-growing wish list of musical artists for the show, and this season has already featured appearances from Cayetana, Mannequin Pussy, and a rare performance from Atom And His Package.
In anticipation of the season’s second half, I touched base via email with the show’s three music bookers — Zane Van Dusen, Heidi Vanderlee, and Kiri Oliver — to learn about the DIY past, late-night cable present, and seemingly (almost) limitless future of the The Gethard Show‘s music department.
Can you describe a little of your background and how you found your way to TCGS?
Zane Van Dusen: In 2011, my band Toys And Tiny Instruments was getting booked on a lot of live comedy shows in NYC. For the most part those shows sucked because we’d schlep all our stuff to the gig, we’d play a couple songs at the end while the audience was leaving, and we wouldn’t get paid. So we had a band meeting and decided to stop playing comedy shows after this last offer we got from a guy named Chris Gethard with a public access show. We figured that even if this one sucked, we would get a video out of it. But, it turned out to be this awesome hour of chaos — we really had no clue what was going on but the audience went nuts and actually DANCED to our set! After that I started watching every week and telling everyone about it. I was telling my friends’ bands to contact Chris and get on the show (back then anyone who e-mailed Chris was on the show the following week) until J.D. [Amato, The Chris Gethard Show Executive Producer] and Chris approached me after an episode and asked if I would officially take over the music booking. I was so stoked to do it except that it was a huge undertaking to get book bands every week for no money — so I asked if I could recruit one or two friends to help.
Heidi Vanderlee: Kiri Oliver and I were booking bands for a feminist arts collective called Permanent Wave every month, so we were really entrenched in that particular scene and always looking for new cool bands to book. That’s actually how we met Zane — his band Mindtroll played one of our first shows. Zane sat us down in a Whole Foods at Union Square and very seriously asked us if we wanted to help him book for TCGS and then had us over to watch a few episodes and I think we were like, “this is very weird but we are intrigued.” At least that’s how I felt. I’ve also been fascinated with public access forever. My mom played with her flute quartet on public access TV when I was growing up and it was a Very Big Deal.
Z: I totally forgot about when I invited you guys over! I thought I would totally sell you on this gig by showing “Sandwich Night” and some other clips — but I think you got even more confused.
Kiri Oliver: As Heidi said, she and I were booking a lot of DIY feminist punk shows in Brooklyn, and also playing in a band together. I had no knowledge of public access when Zane asked us to share the job with him, beyond the fact that people did really weird stuff on it. But when we went to a live taping the next week to check it out, it was so fun and full of good energy, I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it. So it just became part of our lives to be out really late every Wednesday night in a studio on the far west side of Manhattan, watching the tapings (which were always a surprise since the writing and booking happened separately) and having our friends’ bands play.
What is your goal when booking artists for the show?
K: Something that’s always been a top priority for us from public access through now is booking a diverse range of high-energy bands and artists, particularly ones a bit on the weird side, who can get a big dance party going in the studio. This has never been a “band performing for a seated studio audience” situation. Everyone get up and gets into it, including Chris and the cast and crew, and I think that translates to the viewers as something special and different.
Z: For me, it’s always been about the audience and giving them an opportunity to see themselves in the music — because music is for everyone. One of the reasons I originally invited Heidi and Kiri to do this with me was that in the early public access days The Gethard Show had a large contingent of young women in their teens calling in. Heidi and Kiri had access to this large network of female-fronted musicians so it was a perfect fit; they could show The Gethard Show audience that music doesn’t have to be a bunch of dudes by showing them a ton of rad women rocking out. When we moved to Fusion, it was a totally new audience — we were on a bilingual network so it was super important for me to get acts like Downtown Boys and M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, who bring a Latino perspective to the music. Now with truTV, the audience is anyone and everyone so we’re really trying to curate a mix of anything and everything outside the norm.
H: I really like booking bands that would probably never be on TV otherwise because their name is like, Mannequin Pussy — which is actually the name of a recent musical guest. We love them so much.
What is the booking process? How much say does Chris have? Is it his list or yours?
K: We make a big list before every season composed of wish list bands that didn’t work out on past seasons and new ideas. Then we share it with Chris and narrow it down to our priorities to reach out to first, making sure we feel good about the diversity of genres and the mix of more and less well-known bands and artists. We all go to a lot of shows, so we’re most often bringing up bands we’ve seen live that we think would be a great fit, and we share our band suggestions by sending around their live videos. That’s the main focus, rather than who has a new album coming out on a certain date or is getting press lately or whatever.
Z: Chris has a lot of input when we’re putting together our short list for each season but most of his real suggestions come via text messages at odd hours about bands that he is suddenly super excited about and we NEED to have on the show. Or randomly tweeting at a band he likes. Or more recently calling them out on Conan.
H: Cosign the above. It is actually really awesome to have the dude whose name is on the show super stoked about what we’re bringing to the show. Imagine how weird it would be if he was just like ‘Ah yes! A Music Band! That should be sufficient!’
How has the experience of booking acts changed throughout the years? First on public access, then on Fusion, and now on truTV?
Z: We have a surprising amount of freedom on both truTV and Fusion — they have approved almost every band we have pitched — except when Fusion rejected Less Than Jake, sending Gethard into a hilarious rage. But on public access there was literally no oversight. In our first meeting with Chris, he told us to book whoever we want and we don’t need to review anything with him. Just let him know who’s playing next week so he can announce it. That was a ballsy move considering we had known him for maybe a couple hours in total. But realistically it was the only way we could get bands on the show every week. Especially in the beginning, we had to beg (and in some cases bribe) people to play the show.
K: We started out asking our friends’ bands to come play on this weird public access show, when there wasn’t as much of a link between the music and comedy scenes. As more bands played, especially more well-known ones like Real Estate and the Screaming Females, it was really fun to see music fans get excited about the show — and at the same time, to see comedy fans get excited about the bands. When we moved to Fusion, we went from booking bands year-round to choosing ten per season, which forced us to really hone in on the big acts we wanted to go after and the more local ones we wanted to introduce to our audience. On truTv, we have sixteen episodes this year and are going even bigger, while still saving a few slots for lesser-known bands that we know would really bring it and could benefit from the exposure.
H: I used to have to literally drive bands to the MNN studio as a condition of them agreeing to play on the show. Then tell them we had one monitor and maybe three inputs for their thirteen piece band. I miss a lot of things about public access but that is not one of them. Still, we get an incredible amount of freedom, as Kiri and Zane mentioned above. I feel really lucky all the time that nobody is telling me I have to book this band or that band because their album cycle is happening or whatever.
What acts do you hope to bring to the show in the coming episodes?
Z: This season we’ve got a number of bands from the Bay Area, Washington state, the midwest, and Canada, which is really exciting because previously their travel expenses would be larger than what we could pay them — which on Public Access was $0.00.
K: I’m excited that we have some bands coming up that fans of the show have been vocal about loving and wanting to see — mixed in with some that they might not have heard yet, but that we think will put on an amazing show.
H: I plead the fifth.
Who is your dream act to book on the show?
Z: I wish there was a way to time travel back to the 1990s and get Wesley Willis on the show. He really embodies that outsider punk aesthetic that we’re all about — the dude self-released over fift albums of his bizarre but always on point rants about the world over the “auto-play” feature on his keyboard. Just imagine our crowd of weirdos shouting the chorus to “Rock And Roll McDonalds” while Willis lovingly does his trademark head-butt with anyone he can reach. That’s the dream.
H: Uncle Floyd, mostly because he has turned us down flat multiple times. Tonetta, though I would probably immediately regret it. The Julie Ruin. The Hold Steady. Metz. The Fall. The Pop Group.
K: Against Me!, The Mountain Goats, AJJ.
The Chris Gethard Show is on Thursdays at 11PM Eastern on TruTV. Despite the credits rolling during most of the musical acts, you can switch over to Instagram to watch the full performances live from the studio, with the full performance also uploaded to the show’s YouTube channel the Friday after each episode.